"Murphy's Law" Lead

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Tue Nov 15 04:18:09 UTC 2005

In a message dated Sat, 12 Nov 2005 09:15:55 -0500,  Fred Shapiro
_fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU_ (mailto:fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU)  inquired:

>I wonder whether someone on this list can help me with a "Murphy's  Law"
>lead.  Barry Popik discovered "Reilly's Law," identical to  Murphy's Law,
>mentioned in a story by Lee Correy in Astounding  Science-Fiction, Feb.
>1955; this is the third oldest documented version  of ML I am aware of

Let's see now.  Put 6 members of ADS-L at 6 computers and in a  million years
they will type out the entire OED.  I do not have the 1994  issue of Analog
that Dave Hause was able to quote from, but I do happen to own  the February
1955 issue cited above (which I held onto because it contains  a story that I
have been unable to acquire in book form).

I find Stine-alias-Correy's story unreadable.  Luckily the desired  quote is
only 4 pages into the story.  Page 53 column 2:

   "The same types of components rode the KX-238 that were in the  _Griffon
I_," Bill O'Brien, the controls man, remarked.
    "But the _Griffon_ was a box-kite compared to this  one," Ed Alcott told
him.  "We flew a lot of new stuff this time."
    "True, true," O"Brien mused.  "But it was the  same type of gear . .
.basically.  It should have worked fine---"
    "But it didn't," Karlter pointed out.  He  drummed the desk top with his
fingernails.  "Boys, here at White Sands our  toughest problem has always been
reliability.  It's difficult to get  something to work the same way every
time.  Some engineering sciences have  licked the reliability problem, but it
looks like we're still stuck with  it."
    "Reilly's Law," Guy Barclay said cryptically.
<page 54 column 1>
    "Reilly's Law," Guy repeated.  "It states that  in any scientific or
engineering endeavor, anythig that can go wrong _will_ go  wrong."
    "Very true in rocketry," Karlter admitted.   "So we've got to put in
components we know to be reliable to the  _nth_degree."
    "But it was a basic design flaw as well," Dwright  Jacobs objected.
    "That it was," Karlter was the project engineer, a  man with long
experience in rocketry.  He knew what such a thing  meant."

and in similar vein for another 15 pages.

I have several comments:
1) "Reilly" like "Murphy" is an Irish name.  Perhaps Stine had some  reason
for not using Captain Murphy's real name (did Stine know Murphy  personally?),
or perhaps he simply forgot the name, remembering only that it was  something
Irish, and (Murphy's Law!) guessed wrong.
2) The story is a good example of what SF critics call an "idiot  plot"---one
that keeps going only because everyone in the plot is an  idiot.  If the
characters in the story had been real pros, the  story would have been well on its
way to being solved at page 53 top of  column 1, and the above dialogue would
never have taken place.
3) Stine appears to draw a distinction between "design flaws" and other
types of bugs.  Well, the late Admiral Hopper did not invent the term  "bug", but
having met her I can just imagine what she would say about  people who split
hairs as to whether a bug is a design flaw or not.
4) Reilly's Law is not "identical to Murphy's Law" because  Reilly's version
specifies "in any scientific or engineering endeavor".   Were we to discuss
Bush's tax cuts, which have proven to be a political  minefield for both
Democrats and Republicans, we could not say either side were  a victim of Reilly's
Law, because it was neither a scientific or engineering  endeavor.
5) the statement in the third-to-last speech "we've got to put in  components
we know to be reliable" only shows the speaker to be an amateur, if  not an
idiot.  Serious problems are frequently the result of unplanned-for
interactions between components that by themselves are quite reliable (e.g. your
favorite software won't run on your PC because of that new anti-virus package  you
just installed)..

Captain Murphy, whether or not he invented the law named after him, appears
to have been a competent and knowledgable engineer.  Stine, judging by the
above prose, does not, which leads me to suspect whether he ever talked to
Captain Murphy.

All in all, I don't think I'd want to ride any rocket ships that G. Harry
Stine designed.

          - James A.  Landau

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